The Pentagon's loftiest research agency wants to add a little love to national security. Sort of. In a new request for research proposals, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is asking investigators to develop refined techniques for the measurement of oxytocin — a neurohormone implicated in myriad human behaviors, but best known for its roles in bonding and sexual arousal.

In recent years, research into oxytocin has surged. We've long known that oxytocin is important for reproduction, and that it plays a pivotal role in maternal bonding after childbirth. More recent studies suggest that oxytocin might hasten wound healing, bolster against stress, and enhance levels of connectedness and generosity. As DARPA points out, those attributes "affect behaviors relevant to national security" — including vulnerability to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as social interactions that might impact military cohesiveness or even the outcome of an international conflict.

"Novel methods to measure oxytocin levels in the human body"

So in an effort to better understand oxytocin, the agency's looking for better ways to measure it in the human body. Unfortunately, that's trickier than it sounds: because oxytocin is present in extremely small quantities, picking it up from blood samples with any degree of sensitivity is tough. And the process is nearly impossible with sweat or saliva samples, both of which would be more convenient to test, the agency pointed out. In particular, DARPA's looking for an approach that could distinguish bioactive forms of oxytocin — those that play a role in behavior — from inert ones. "More sensitive and specific assay techniques for oxytocin would provide a more accurate picture of the complex regulation of this intriguing neurohormone," the agency noted.

An effort to enhance public messages from the US military

By the end of the program, DARPA wants to see a method successfully tested in "animal or human experiments," and data on oxytocin levels during stress and social interaction. They hope to see the technique applied in several areas, including the evaluation of how oxytocin might help prevent or treat PTSD. Perhaps most intriguingly, the agency noted that their Narrative Networks program — an effort to enhance public messages from the US military through an understanding of the brain's inner workings — is already evaluating the role of oxytocin, and might also benefit from this new research.